Guest post by David Middleton
This Forbes article was written by retired oil industry executive and geophysicist Earl Ritchie. In my opinion, it is a very well-balanced treatment of renewable energy.
OCT 17, 2016
The Shift To Renewables: How Far, How Fast?
POST WRITTEN BY
Earl J. Ritchie, Lecturer, Department of Construction Management
University of Houston Energy FellowsUniversity of Houston Energy Fellows, Contributor
Powering the United States or the world with 100% renewable energy is the stated goal of many individuals and organizations. What they are really talking about is 100% renewables to generate electricity, because it’s not feasible in the near-term to replace motor fuels with renewables. Views of how quickly this can be done are highly polarized – some predict less than two decades, while others see fossil fuels as the dominant source at least through 2050.
The primary argument for renewable energy is to avoid anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change by reducing CO2 emissions.
How quickly can it be done?
In a 2008 speech, former Vice President Al Gore said it was “achievable, affordable and transformative” to generate all electricity in in the United States using wind, solar and other renewable sources within 10 years. One might dismiss this as political hyperbole, and it has not happened.
A claim that arguably has a better technical basis appeared in a widely publicized November 2009 Scientific American article by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, professors at Stanford University and the University of California respectively. They suggested all electrical generation and ground transportation internationally could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources as early as 2030. Even that is wildly optimistic…
Other forecasts are considerably less optimistic. Two examples: the2015 MIT Energy and Climate Outlook has low carbon sources worldwide as only 25% of primary energy by 2050, and renewables only 16%; the International Energy Agency’s two-degree scenario has renewables, including biomass, as less than 50%. Even the pledges of the widely praised Paris Agreement of the parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) leave fossil fuels near 75% of energy supply in 2030, when the commitments end.
How are we doing?
Growth of renewables as a fraction of the overall energy supply has been slow, although recent growth of wind and solar is impressive. This graph shows the annual growth rate of renewables in the U.S. since 1980 as less than 2%.
Since 2007, wind and solar have grown over 20% per year in absolute terms, and about 15% as a percent of supply. There was no growth in other renewables during that period. The international numbers are similar.
What is possible?
Proponents of renewable energy are fond of saying that 100% renewable is technically feasible; it only requires political will. With some caveats, this is true. There is theoretically enough sunlight and wind, and a growth rate of 20% means a doubling every four years. If sustained, this would mean we could have 500 times the existing amount of wind and solar by 2050. However, there are both economic and technical barriers.
The rapid growth of renewables in both the United States and Europe has been due in large part to subsidies that make investment in renewables highly profitable.
Technical barriers to wind and solar are largely the result of intermittency and the location of favorable areas. Intermittency is not a problem as long as the proportion of renewable energy is small and excess capacity exists in conventional generating plants. It begins to become a problem when intermittent sources reach 30% of capacity and is very significant when it reaches 50%.
Intermittency can theoretically be handled by diversification of sources, load shifting, overbuilding capacity, and storage. All add cost. Diversification on a broad scale would require substantial changes to the energy grid. Storage on a utility scale is in an early stage of development, so costs remain uncertain. A large number of technologies exist, with varying estimated costs and applicability.
Some proponents of accelerating the replacement of fossil fuels advocate a massive effort, which they call a “moon shot” or compare to World War II. But this transition requires a great deal more effort than the moon shot, and there is serious question whether there is political motivation comparable to World War II. I’ll talk about that in a future post.
Earl J. Ritchie is a retired energy executive and teaches a course on the oil and gas industry at the University of Houston. He has 35 years’ experience in the industry. He started as a geophysicist with Mobil Oil and subsequently worked in a variety of management and technical positions with several independent exploration and production companies. Ritchie retired as Vice President and General Manager of the offshore division of EOG Resources in 2007. Prior to his experience in the oil industry, he served at the US Air Force Special Weapons Center, providing geologic and geophysical support to nuclear research activities.
I don’t know Mr. Ritchie very well. I have met him in the past and several friends of mine know him very well. His reputation as an extremely intelligent, thoughtful and fair-minded person is very well-earned, in my opinion.
While I am certain that many advocates of 100% renewable energy are sincere… You, literally, “can’t get there from here” without spending trillions of the taxpayers’ and energy consumers’ dollars.
Three fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and coal—have provided more than 80% of total U.S. energy consumption for more than 100 years. In 2015, fossil fuels made up 81.5% of total U.S. energy consumption, the lowest fossil fuel share in the past century. In EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2016 Reference case projections, which reflect current laws and policies, that percentage declines to 76.6% by 2040. Policy changes or technology breakthroughs that go beyond the trend improvements included in the Reference case could significantly change that projection.
In 2015, the renewable share of energy consumption in the United States was its largest since the 1930s at nearly 10%. The greatest growth in renewables over the past decade has been in solar and wind electricity generation.Liquid biofuels have also increased in recent years, contributing to the growing renewable share of total energy consumption.
In EIA’s Reference case projection, petroleum consumption remains similar to current levels through 2040, as fuel economy improvements and other changes in the transportation sector offset growth in population and travel. Coal consumption continues to decline, especially in the electric power sector. Natural gas consumption increases in the industrial sector and the electric power sector.
Some electric fuels, such as nuclear and hydroelectric, remain relatively flat in the Reference case, with little change in capacity or generation through 2040. Biomass, which includes wood as well as liquid biofuels like ethanol and biodiesel, remain relatively flat, as wood use declines and biofuel use increases slightly. In contrast, wind and solar are among the fastest-growing energy sources in the projection, ultimately surpassing biomass and nuclear, and nearly exceeding coal consumption in the Reference case projection by 2040.
Despite the investment of over $1 trillion of private capital and billions of corporate welfare since 2008, wind and solar have actual grown at a slower pace than natural gas and are projected to have a slower growth rate through 2040. Renewables, including hydroelectric, have barely gotten back to where they were in 1930.
The truly insane thing, is that some are advocating the rapid elimination of natural gas from the mix.
Politico Morning Energy recently reported that a major environmental group, the Sierra Club, doesn’t want to cross the natural gas bridge at all. They are organizing an aggressive campaign to stop the construction of natural gas power plants and pipelines. In the Sierra Club’s view there’s no river or canyon in our way. The US just needs to make the leap directly to a low carbon future, abandoning fossil fuels as quickly as possible. The Sierra Club believes that if the US and other countries cross the natural gas bridge, the world is headed toward a climate catastrophe.
The IEA’s 2014 $44 trillion estimated cost to decarbonize global power generation would be a “drop in the bucket,” if natural gas was eliminated from the mix.